Monday, July 31, 2017

NY, NY, It’s a Wonderful Town

The Bronx may be up and the Battery down, but for us our week in New York City, other than theater (see previous entry) was about seeing family, friends, and a nostalgic stroll (walk /Uber / cab / subway) down memory lane.  I was born in NYC (actually Queens which any true New Yorker would dismiss as Manhattan to them is THE City).  I lived in Richmond Hill until my teenage years, although began working in Manhattan as a 14 year old for my father’s photography business during the summers, and continued to work there through high school and early college years.  Married in my senior year in college, I became a Brooklynite, living first in downtown Brooklyn and then Park Slope.  I wrote about my nostalgic return to Brooklyn last year.

After my divorce in the late 60s, I moved to West 85th Street, my first official residence in Manhattan (although when separated from my first wife, I lived with a friend in his East Village apartment).  After Ann and I were married, I moved into her one bedroom apartment on West 63rd Street.

Since I started with geography, I’m taking our trip out of order, continuing the geographic tour.  The last day before we left (Friday) it was forecast to be another 95 degree day – think it was the fourth in a row over 90.  Ann said she’d rather stay and rest that day and get started on the preliminary packing for our return flight the next morning, so I had a sudden urge to make the most of that morning, before the temperature soared, by walking our old West side neighborhoods.  After all, as an ex-New Yorker I had confidence that I could recapture that pace – the one that perfectly syncs with the changing traffic lights as one walks north or south (doesn’t work for cross town), so at about 10 AM I set off from 54th and 7th Avenue to my ultimate destination:  my old West side apartment, a third floor walk up at 66 West 85th Street. 

My improvised plan was to first go up Central Park West to the apartment which Ann moved into in the early 60’s, the one I moved into when we got married in 1970.  And so I set off.

I crossed Columbus Circle and went up Central Park West and made a left on 63rd and there behind a lot of scaffolding was our first apartment at 33 West 63rd St.  Then I went over to Columbus and then began another 20 plus walk up to 85th Street.  The change in nearly 50 years was remarkable, so gentrified, with boutique shops, markets, restaurants.  I went into a Duane Reade to buy a bottle of water and to use their restroom.  But I forgot: NYC is not hospitable to providing restrooms so I walked further to a local boutique coffee shop and bought a bottle of Perrier and there was a restroom.  Tragedy averted. 

Decided to take a brief rest there and watch the world go by.  Outside I saw a young woman handing out leaflets, talking to people, trying to get them to sign an electronic petition, so after having my drink, I emerged and talked to her.  She was urging people to sign onto an effort to curb an environmental issue in the neighborhood.  I explained that I was from Florida and the last time I lived here, only a block away now, was nearly a half a century ago.  I might as well have been from Mars, but she still urged me to sign as there was also a national dimension.  So I did, and we briefly chatted about the now beautiful west side and the long term threats to the environment given Washington’s current leadership.

So, I walked on, saw the entrance to my old apartment on West 85th St. and looked down the street towards Central Park West, so inviting now.  Sigh, if we could only live in this area again.

But I was only half way through my journey as I wanted to walk down Amsterdam now which had also changed dramatically.   At 79th and I turned east as I wanted to see another apartment Ann lived in before moving to 63rd Street.  She shared an apartment with another woman at 172 West 79th.  It is still there, a stately prewar building.  And actually, when Ann first moved to the city in 1959, her first apartment was a furnished room in a beautifully restored old brownstone at 39 West 69th (which I did not visit), but she has fond memories of living there and watching some scenes from the movie The Apartment being filmed on the street at the time.

I turned south back onto Columbus.  Opposite Lincoln Center (Ann watched it being built just across the street from where she lived) is a restaurant, P.J. Clarke's, to which we used to go almost a half century ago when it was called “O’Neill’s Balloon”.  Strange name for a restaurant, yes?  Well, it was originally “O’Neill’s Saloon” and the story goes that NYC at the time prohibited using “Saloon” so they just changed the “S” to a “B” and squeezed in an additional “l”.  A NYC expedient solution, indeed.

Also, 63rd Street at Lincoln Center has a secondary name, “George Balanchine Way” and there is a back story concerning this.  Most of our Connecticut years were on Ridge Road in Weston.  It was there that the great ballerina, Tanaquil Le Clercq lived, the ex wife of Balanchine. He built a wheelchair ramp for her at that home as she was tragically stricken with polio in 1956.  He finally left her for his last wife but she was always considered his muse.  We never saw her while living there.  Most homes were much hidden from the road.

Ann and I took another nostalgic walking tour earlier in the week.  We wanted to see the old building where we both worked and where we first met at 111 5th Avenue.  I have even deeper roots in that general lower Fifth avenue area, so I’ll describe our visit in the order of our trip that day.   

First stop was 100 5th Avenue.  My father’s photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, occupied the very top floor of the building for about 60 years (my grandfather before him) and from about 1936 to 1980 he commuted there from Richmond Hill, Queens, with his brother, my Uncle Phil, (except for the War years).  From about 1956, when I was only 14, to when I was 20, I worked there each summer, riding to work in the back of their small van, sitting among the props, from our home, to Woodhaven Blvd., to the Long Island Expressway and then through the Queens Midtown tunnel, down Park Avenue, to 100 5th Avenue. 

My first job was as a delivery boy, delivering proofs to customers all over New York, usually by subway, so I got to know the city fairly well, almost as if I lived in Manhattan rather than Queens.  That entire lower 5th Avenue has a special place in my reflective psyche.

So there it was, the same entrance I had gone in and out of a thousand times, the building looking the same, but, as everything else in the area, gentrified, boutique shops replacing the old coffee shops and industrial equipment stores.  From there we walked down to 14th Street toward Union Square.  When I was first married we (ex-wife) lived in Brooklyn and the subway stop left me off at Union Square.  It was there that I was the only New Yorker who has ever received a J-walking ticket.  I was crossing with a mob of people but the cop signaled me over.  I remember writing a letter to the Mayor at the time, John Lindsey, as it was the principle of the matter, not the violation.  I’m still patiently waiting for a reply.:-)

In any case, Union Square is now a lush park, and I wanted to find a Union Square diner which I clearly remember going to on several occasions in the mid 1960’s.  It was the go-to place if a large group of us were going out from the office.  I usually had a very inexpensive hero sandwich with Jim Mafchir who was a close friend and colleague.  He actually showed me the ropes of publishing production work and when I first separated from my wife, lived with him briefly in his East Village apartment.  About ten years ago we reconnected with him in Sante Fe, NM.

One of those luncheons at the coffee shop included a gal I didn’t know well, Ann, who would become my wife years later.  So, for the purposes of this visit, I wanted to see what boutique shop might have replaced it.  To our shock, the old Chase Coffee shop on Union Square is still there.  Changed ownership 28 years ago, and the layout is different, but it is still a traditional NYC coffee shop so naturally, that is where we had to have lunch and retread footsteps from another lifetime, when we hardly knew one another.  In this selfie, you can see “Coffee Shop” over my left shoulder.

From there we forged on to 111 5th Avenue where I worked from 1964 to 1969 and Ann worked from 1965 to 1971.  Funny how we went in and out of those elevators so many times, and never fully appreciated the fine workmanship of them and the lobby.  We finally did on this, our final visit.

Then, we went north on 5th Avenue and we looked for a restaurant we used to go to after work on the west side of the street.  Gone.  Up to 23rd Street.  Jim and I used to go to some of the bars on that street and have an Irish lunch.  They’re pretty much gone.  The Flatiron building of course still stands majestically at the intersection of 5th and Broadway.

Another building I had to see was the Met Life in front of Madison Square Park as I had two connections with that building.  My grandfather (on my mother’s side) worked there and later in my publishing career, we rented space there for Praeger Publishers which we had bought from CBS, so I used to visit regularly.  Every time I entered the building I had to sign in and get a pass which I used to just sometimes stick on the inside of my brief case.  Even though that was more than 20 years ago, I not only still use that briefcase, but the passes still remain.  Why I haven’t removed them, I have no idea. Maybe it was for this moment.

Finally, one more destination in this area, and that was 28 West 23rd Street, a building I used to regularly visit to attend board meetings of our then parent company, Williamhouse Regency from 1970 to 1976.  Therefore, you might say, much of my working career is tethered to that area.

 From there, we had intended to Uber up 6th Avenue to our hotel but as all of lower to even upper Manhattan, traffic was at a standstill and it was beastly hot by then too, we took the easy way, the 6th Avenue Subway, and thus back in a flash.  “The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!”

Earlier in the week we had a date to lunch with Ann’s niece Regina and her two children, nearly adults, Forrest, and Serena.  We had agreed to meet at the Grill in the Standard Hotel right near the southern entrance to the High Line and there we had lunch, their menu very creative, the waiter fun, and the ambiance, trendy, reflective of its roots in the meatpacking district.

After catching up with the activities of the now grownup “kids” and a relaxing lunch, we all walked the entire length of the High Line from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street. The High Line was built on an elevated freight line that was supposed to be demolished.  Instead, it has become an example of how such industrial space can become an integral part of a beautiful city, affording views, cultural art, and community spirit.  It brings back a little of old New York, combining it with the sensibilities of modern times, with its street art and architecture of new buildings.

Although some very good and old favorite NYC restaurants were another go to feature of our trip, I’ll only mention one, and that is the legendary Le Bernardin.  We’ve been there before, not often of course, but we made it a point to go to this very exceptional restaurant and there we celebrated being together with Jonathan and Tracie.

Speaking of whom, we also spent the day with them, the Sunday after we arrived, we taking the New Haven railroad to South Norwalk where they picked us up and we went immediately to our boat where they had a lunch waiting for us.  It seemed odd to be there as a one-day visitor, but we’ll be back later in the summer to stay there. 

Naturally, while there we had to get out on the water, that day perhaps being the best day of the week, taking our little runabout to visit friends on their boats.  Finally back to our ‘Swept Away’ to read the New York Times and then Jonathan and Tracy prepared a feast for dinner, king crab legs and sous vide T-bone steak and, unexpectedly, a neighboring boat had just returned from a fishing tournament so there was fresh mahi mahi to grill as well.  That night they returned us to NYC as they both had to drive back for work.

We were going to go to the lower east side on Thursday but it was supposed to be in the mid 90s with high humidity and being outside would probably kill us so we "settled" for a day at MOMA before the theatre that night.

I ended up taking about 100 photographs and I managed to cover all five floors and we had a lovely lunch in their restaurant.

Instead of posting everything, I’m including a few that felt very personal to me, especially in this chaotic political era.  So many of the MOMA’s collection presents other similar times, ones that we’ve lived through, such as in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents, one can appreciate the following:

Simon Denny’s “Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of David Darchicourt Designs for NSA Defense Intelligence.”

 Or Kara Walker’s “40 Acres of Mules” where  “characters play out repulsive dramas of racial and gender bigotry

There was an entire exhibit “Why Pictures Now” devoted to the iconoclastic Louise Lawler.  When asked to submit a picture of herself for a 1990 issue of Artscribe magazine, she submitted one of Meryl Streep, “acknowledging MOMA’s role in presenting artists as celebrities.”

Robert Rauschenberg’s work really captures the zeitgeist of not only the turbulent 60s, but also anticipates the unrest of today.  

 His “Signs” (1970) warns about the “Danger lies in forgetting."  Indeed, 1960's political foment reminds one of today's world.  

His “Stop Side Early Winter Glut” (1987) is an environmental warning and a warning of spiritual ruination.  “It’s a time of glut.  Green is rampant…I simply want to present people with their ruins.”

As an ex New Yorker I viscerally responded to his “Estate” (1963)

Mobs of people were photographing Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) which haunts.

Personally, I’d like to have this one hanging over my piano (in addition to “Rebecca” which presently hangs there):  Picasso “Three Musicians” (1921).

So, this entry and my prior one summarizes one very intense week.  If it was not for the unbearable heat, and crowds, we'd still be dreaming of living there again.  I think we've abandoned that dream, although we’ll be back to the city where we have deep roots.  The exciting multiculturalism and the juxtaposition of where new architecture meets the old still speak to us.